At a phone-banking session for Minnesotans United for All Families on Monday night, a mother told of driving with her five-year-old daughter through sections of town that had vote yes signs, even churches that had vote yes signs. Her world view was shaped by those who supported marriage equality and the only church expression she knew about was the expression that welcomed and affirmed all. Her moms told her about the other parts of the world that didn’t believe like they did. She got silent for a long time. Then she said, “Momma, if the amendment passes, does that mean that you and Mommy have to get divorced?”
Jesus had his share of people who opposed him and his belief system. And if we are good students of scripture, we will see how the Pharisees were almost always part of the opposition of Jesus. But before we demonize every Pharisee, let’s look at who the Pharisees were in the larger landscape.
Remember that the Jews were an occupied people when Jesus showed up. They were living in a tenuous relationship with Romans who politically occupied their land. Jews were able to continue their worship and their way of life as long as they played by Roman rules and didn’t challenge Pax Romana. They had relatively free reign in the walled city of Jerusalem, but they needed to exchange their Roman money for Hebrew money when they got the temple mount. Thus, Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers who might not have been honest. Seems bankers were suspect back then too. Singing the sacred songs outside Jerusalem was risky business. Rocking the boat could get people killed. Romans thought nothing of crucifying trouble-makers. Their wails and rotting corpses on trees or crosses served as a warning not to step out of line. Some might rightly call Roman occupation a terrorist state. The Priests tried to hold things together and the whole concept of religion was mired by the struggle to be holy without arousing suspicion, which meant you had to ignore the writings of the Hebrew prophets. Opposing rabble-rousers was a way of currying favor with the occupying army. This is where Jesus was thrown, and eventually why he was crucified as an insurrectionist. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment, but it needed a religious backing, so the trumped up charges were blasphemy.
When The Gospels were written there were at least four major factions or parties: The Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes and the Pharisees.
The Sadducees were pragmatists who had a strong belief in traditional Judaism. When we see the Sadducees in the Bible, we see them arguing with the Pharisees about the doctrine of the resurrection. The Sadducees didn’t believe in it and they thought such talk was subversive at best and revolutionary at worst. The historian Josephus said that the Sadducees made up the Priestly class. They were the ones in charge of the Temple. They were also the upper classes. Being the Leaders, the Sanhedrin, the priests of the Temple, they had the most contacts with the Roman leadership. They cut deals with them. It was up to them to keep the peace. Therefore, they had little patience for subversive ideas or movements. They certainly had little time or energy for an itinerant and annoying preacher named Jesus and his motley crew of derelicts and vision—seers.
But for as much as the Sanhedrin tried to keep the peace by compromising with the Romans, there were other groups that were not so interested in that. The Zealots were not interested in compromise with the Romans. They were impatient about the Roman’s need to leave Jewish Territory. They carried out attacks on Roman strongholds. They tried to undermine Roman authority by showing its weakness. They also tried to show the Sanhedrin’s weakness as colluding with oppression. Like Saul Alinsky, the Zealots believed that it was better to collide than collude. But their methods were almost always violent. The Zealots were thrilled that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, because it would usher in the violent overthrow of the Romans—their Messiah was a military ruler, like King David of old, ready to slay the Giant Roman Philistine with a few smooth stones. The Romans hated the Zealots. The fact that Jesus had a few zealots or recovering zealots among his followers meant that the Romans probably hated Jesus, too.
So we have the colluding Sadducees, the violent Zealots, and then the ascetic Essenes. The Essenes don’t show up at all in the New Testament. But they did exist and we know probably the most about them thanks to their libraries that were discovered at Qumran also known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They were an ascetic bunch that removed themselves from the rest of society. They lived on the banks of the Jordan River away from the hustle, bustle and craziness of Jerusalem. They were ritual purists and practiced Baptism as a way of removing sins. Some scholars believe that John the Baptist, Jesus and many of his disciples were actually Essenes, or at least influenced by them. They were apocalyptic and believed that the world was headed to a battle between good and evil. Their war scroll talked of a battle between the children of darkness and the children of light. So their work was to become as pure as possible, washing themselves clean from the sin and stain of the world, and keeping their community together.
Next to all of these groups the Pharisees actually seem pretty benign and intellectual. The Pharisees saw their role as the keepers of the tradition. If the tradition of the elders was lost by collusion, by war, or by removal from society, then the culture of what it was to be Jewish would be lost forever. So, the Pharisees kept strict rules and believed in a literal application of the 613 laws of the Torah. But not only that, they also had another set of rules and restrictions that were handed down by elders that they saw as authoritative—like how to dress and in what order, when to tithe and how to do it, like how to follow the law. It was the law that would save them. The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee, so was Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimethea, so was the historian Josephus. It was an honorable group to be a part of, kinda like the urban league for religious fanatics.
The Sadducees were dominant in politics and the priesthood, but the Pharisees were the purists—the ones to be trusted for they did not collude to get by. They became the primary Bible teachers in each village. Rabbi Hillel was a Pharisees. They were devout. They denounced worldliness and had very high ethical standards. With the Greek influences and the Roman influences, the people were confused. The Pharisees gave them structure and a sense of purity.
But there is a shadow side to acting under a threat. Remember that the most restrictive rules are always written in times of crisis. The Taliban emerged when there was a threat of western influence. The Tea Party emerged when there was a perceived threat to our democracy. Leviticus was written during the Babylonian exile when the identity of the people was going to be lost. The Pharisees were trying to hold together the fragile and tenuous people using rules. And when the rules became ineffective after a while, their response was to add more rules.
The Romans liked the Sadducees, hated the Zealots, ignored the Essenes, and tolerated the annoying Pharisees.
Pharisees: Purists who tried to reform the people by fidelity to scripture and the holy order of things. They were good people who had the best of intentions. They were the liberals among the group. The Sadducees were the conservatives, the zealots were the radicals, the Essenes were the drop outs and the Pharisees sought to contain the damage and get the people back to the root of their faith. It was good and noble work.
But the problem with the Pharisees was that they got so blinded in their own way of being right, that they lost sight of the bigger picture. Jesus’ work was too unorthodox for them. He broke the mold. He challenged their worldview. Most importantly, he broke the rules.
I wonder if we are more like the Pharisees or more like Jesus. In this election season, we seem to worry about party affiliation. We make snap decisions on our neighbors based upon their lawn signs. We have unconscious litmus tests for our friends and neighbors. We keep score and wonder who is safe and who is not. “Oy vey, let the children come to me.”
In the Bible, the Pharisees are depicted as rule-obsessed prudes. They are Jesus’ foil, his antithesis. When Jesus encounters Pharisees in the Gospels, they are posing trap questions.
If a woman marries seven brothers, whose wife will she be in heaven? (Mark 12:23)
Should we pay taxes to the emperor? (Mk 12:14)
In today’s scripture, Jesus is in a discussion with the Pharisees about marriage. Now, marriage back then had to do with love, but it also had to do with property rights and inheritance. So, divorce put those rights and inheritances in jeopardy. Have things changed all that much?
When a woman receives a certificate of divorce, she loses most of her rights-like the right to own property. She could easily be found begging for food or prostituting herself. In the Kingdom of God there should be mutual respect and concern for each other, not a quick certificate of divorce or a call to a lawyer to take him or her for all she’s worth. Jesus says not what is permissible under the law, but what is possible in the unfolding kingdom of love, peace and justice. Jesus always shows the limits of the Pharisees’ arguments. Marriage ought to be about equality, love, fidelity and no one ought to own another. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at. This upset the Pharisees, because it did not conform to the law. But we follow one who follows a higher law. Maybe, I think Jesus was saying, your definition of marriage needs to be redefined.
When Jesus challenged the Pharisees, it was because they did not fully attend to the poor. They put undo burdens upon women. They distrusted Gentiles. They had a very narrow (too narrow) interpretation of the law. Following the proper rules was more important to them than the weightier matters of justice and compassion. In Matthew 23, Jesus says: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. For you tithe the mint, dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith. It is these you should have practiced. You blind guides, you strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)
When we think of Pharisees, we think of judgmental folk who are interested in preserving religion and society. But aren’t we interested in preserving religion and society too? The Pharisees were actually a reform movement that wanted cultural purity and a seriousness about faith that was intended to be redemptive. Oh, but it’s so much easier to demonize the Pharisees. How do we deal with Pharisees in our midst these days? How do we encounter passionate people with whom we disagree? How do we deal with the rule-obsessed people we see in the mirror?
What if we are more like the Pharisees? What does that mean? Here’s a test thanks to Eugene Peterson:
“Imagine yourself moving into a house with a huge picture window overlooking a lake with a grand view of mountains beyond. Snow-capped mountains, beautiful mountains. You have a ringside seat, before all of this beauty, the cloud formations, the wild storms, the entire spectrum of sun- illuminated colors, and the rocks and the trees and the wildflowers and the water. At first you’re just captivated by this view. You sit and you stand and you look and admire; you catch your breath. Several times a day you interrupt your work and stand before this window to take in the majesty and the beauty. And then one day you notice some bird droppings on the glass, and you get a bucket of water and a towel and you clean it. A couple of days later, a rainstorm leaves the window streaked and the bucket comes out again. One day some visitors with a tribe of small dirty-fingered children come, and the moment they leave you notice there are smudge marks all over the window. They’re hardly out of the door before you have the bucket out again. You’re so proud of that window, and it’s such a large window. But it’s incredible how many different ways foreign objects can attach themselves to that window, obscuring the vision, distracting from the vision. Keeping that window clean now becomes compulsive neurosis. You accumulate ladders and buckets and squeegees. You construct scaffolding outside and one inside; you have to get to all the difficult corners and heights. You end up having the cleanest window in North America, but it’s now been years since you’ve looked through it. You’ve become a Pharisee.”
Sisters and brothers, we come to this place in this day and age when a secular government speaks religious language to influence voters. Our task is to see things as they really are and to see how they can be. We are not called to religiously align with one party any more than Jesus sought to align himself with anything other than the People of the Way. But the people of the Way asked the hard questions, got to the heart and were never satisfied with the easy answers of religion or politics. They pushed deeper, like Jesus did. And we seek to do the same in our lives.
These days, we have Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees and none of the above in our religious and political landscape. Our task as people of the Way is to model the life of Jesus—to align ourselves with the ways of justice, mercy and faith and to repent of our Pharisaic tendencies toward short-sighted purity. The task of the Christian is to go deeper and by going deeper, end up immersed in a new perspective and a new way of life. That’s what saves us and saves those we love.
So plunge yourselves into the water of THAT way—the way of justice, mercy and faith. Let that be your purity. Let that be the antidote for your Pharisaic tendencies. Emerge from that stream of right living dripping wet and seeing the world and yourself clearly.
It will make all the difference.